Fwd: Transcription of Tera (Nigeria); comparisons with work on Welsh (UK)

Don Osborn dzo at BISHARAT.NET
Tue Jul 12 04:51:02 UTC 2005

FYI... According to Ethnologue, this language has about 100,000 
speakers.  DZO

--- In AfricanLanguages at yahoogroups.com, "Donald Z. Osborn" 
<dzo at b...> wrote:
FYI. This is an interesting item about language work in part of 
Nigeria with comparisons to work on Welsh. (Link from H-Hausa).. DZO

'It is the year of Africa. Let's support them in education' Jul 7 2005
Jenny Rees, Western Mail

Dr Paul Tench has been working with a community in Nigeria to record 
their language in written form for the first time since the 1930s. 
Here he describes the work done to form a new written language and 
the comparisons between the Tera language and Welsh.

AGAINST the background of tensions and conflict in Nigeria in recent 
years, a new determination has emerged to assert local self-identity, 
their language and culture, a distinctiveness from the majority 

Compare to Wales in the 1950s: monolingual Welsh-speaking children 
having to be educated in primary school in a "foreign" language.

The political will transformed the linguistic landscape of Wales and 
brought about a sense of nationhood, respect for the local language, 
government support for initiatives in education, and the media, 
literature, and public bilingualism.

This sense of concern in Gombe State, in north-east Nigeria, led to 
an approach to an American linguistics charity, The Seed Company. 
They respond to local initiatives with expertise in developing a 
spelling system and training in translation, principally for Luke's 
Gospel. They assembled a small team of linguists to analyse the local 
languages of Gombe State, in response to these local initiatives.

Small teams gathered for a three-week workshop held in Gombe State. 
One such team represented the Tera language - two retired men, a 
civil servant and a teacher, educated and able to read and write in 
Hausa and English.

We recorded a story, played it back word by word, phrase by phrase 
and they attempted to spell their language from their knowledge of 
Hausa and English spellings.

The theory behind the project is that language is in the mind; we 
carry a large stock of words in our minds - all the words we know. 
They represent all the things, qualities, actions and so on that we 
have ever experienced for ourselves.

We carry all the grammatical patterns we know - they represent all 
the kinds of situations we have experienced (who does what to whom). 
We know what is acceptable, what is not and what is marginal. We know 
how to be polite and impolite, how to put a message across, how to 
get things done. All this is stored in the mind. We also know how to 
pronounce all our words - there may be a few that we feel rather 
uncertain about, but we are able to learn how to pronounce any new 
word we come across.

We have in our minds a pronunciation system for English which 
consists of a number of vowels and consonants, stressed and 
unstressed syllables, rhythm and intonation. The whole of this 
pronunciation system is in the mind, ready for use any time we speak. 
Even illiterate people have all this in their minds - what they don't 
have is a spelling system in their minds that they can use.

We can teach them. But what about people who don't have a spelling 
system at all in their language?

Our methodology was to use the skills they have developed for reading 
and writing the other languages that they know. An alphabet - 
spelling system - might as well conform as closely as possible to the 
other languages that they have to engage with, so that people can 
transfer skills from one language to another.

The ideal spelling system matches sounds to letters in a regular and 
consistent way, much as Welsh does - and Hausa - and not like English!

The Tera team used Hausa spelling as a basis for the vowels and 
consonants as far as they could, and supplemented it with a few items 
from English like p and ch. They got the idea of using h to 
mean "something like"; for example, as sh is a bit like an s in sound 
(think of how Welsh spells the sh sound), so zh is used for a sound a 
bit like z (actually like the middle sound of leisure and vision - 
and just like in Dr Zhivago!).

They use kh for a sound similar to k, equivalent to Welsh ch; and 
parallel to kh, they need a gh. They use ng at the beginning of words 
just like in Welsh, and also mb and nd, but the most amazing thing is 
that they have exactly the same sound as a Welsh ll.

I truly was amazed, because in all my reading and research for this 
project, there was never a hint that any language in Nigeria had 
anything like our Welsh ll. But they too were amazed that a visitor - 
and a white man at that - could say their own special distinctive 
sound without any trouble!

Their own name for themselves also contains the Welsh ll: Nyimatli 
(Welsh spelling: niumallu).

The tl sound does not occur in Hausa or in English, and they could 
not use ll, because it is possible to have words with a double ll 
sounding in the middle of their words, but they do not have the 
possibility of a l sound following a t sound.

To complete the consonant chart, Tera has so-called implosive sounds 
like Hausa, where you get a kind of b, d, g by sucking air in; they 
simply use the special Hausa letters for the first two and q for the 

The vowels were much simpler, just six of them. Five are easy, and 
they could use the five vowel letters of our alphabet: a (as in man), 
e (as in men), i (as in Welsh ni), o (as in Welsh glo) and u (as in 
glue). Their sixth vowel has a distinctly North Walian flavour to it, 
just like their pronunciation of ty ('house'), but the Tera have 
chosen to spell it with u.

One enterprising man has produced an alphabet chart and two little 
booklets of stories from the Bible and is planning to produce a 
series of wall charts on things they use at home, at school, on types 
of animals and birds, and so on.

Others are undergoing translation training to prepare the Gospels in 
Tera. One of them is doing a computing course to enable the team to 
produce their own printed materials in Tera; another, who did his 
Masters in Education at Cardiff University, has produced a training 
manual to help teachers to learn to read and write their own 
language. One great hope is that local governments will be persuaded 
to introduce reading and writing in Tera in primary schools.

Who is paying for all this? Primarily it is the local community. The 
whole project is theirs; the initiative was theirs and the ongoing 
support, and The Seed Company has responded in kind.

But the planning and the decision making beyond that lie in the hands 
in the local community. It is their project; we have helped to 
establish it, but with their orthography and training, and with 
enthusiasm and enterprise, they will carry it on.

Enthusiasm? Goodness me! I couldn't stop them. We began each morning 
at 8.30am and continued non-stop until 12.30pm, and if lunch was 
late, we had to carry on until it arrived. We began again after a 
siesta at 2pm and continued, again non-stop, until 6pm - or later if 
the evening meal was delayed.

We kept this pace up for three intensive weeks. We began work on an 
elementary dictionary - we needed to do that to be sure of where 
words began and ended.

This is the year for Africa. Don't think of Africa as just a hopeless 
case, with rampant HIV/AIDS, famine, poverty, corruption and 
dictatorships. Africa is more than that: there are also plenty of 
ordinary people with honest hopes and ambitions, great concern and 
compassion, a will to achieve something good for their community, 
resourceful, skilled and educated, ready to work with just a little 
help from others. Let's hope that our governments and NGOs will 
support all such efforts, in education as well as health and the 

Paul Tench is Senior Lecturer, Centre for Language and Communication 
Research at Cardiff University

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© owned by or licensed to Trinity Mirror Plc 2005
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